8 Biggest Red Flags We've Seen Go Up in the 2013-14 NBA Season

Bryan Toporek@@btoporekFeatured ColumnistNovember 20, 2013

8 Biggest Red Flags We've Seen Go Up in the 2013-14 NBA Season

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    The New York Knicks and Brooklyn Nets are dealing with major red flags a few weeks into the 2013-14 NBA season.
    The New York Knicks and Brooklyn Nets are dealing with major red flags a few weeks into the 2013-14 NBA season.USA TODAY Sports

    If we've learned anything from the first few weeks of the 2013-14 NBA season, it's that even the toughest title contenders have hiccups to overcome.

    Some teams, like the Miami Heat, shouldn't be sweating their flaws too much. Sure, the Heat started off lackluster on defense, but they've picked up their intensity in recent games and look every bit like the two-time defending champions that they are.

    Others, like the New York Knicks and Brooklyn Nets, have legitimate reason to panic. Both New York squads look like shells of themselves due to injuries and inefficiency on both ends of the court.

    Here, take a look at the biggest red flags we've seen pop up for eight of the preseason playoff favorites.

    Note: All statistics are current through games played on Nov. 18; all records are current through games played on Nov. 19. Unless otherwise noted, all statistics come from Basketball-Reference.com or NBA.com/stats.

The New York Knicks, Post-Tyson Chandler Injury

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    Jesse D. Garrabrant/Getty Images

    If Carmelo Anthony is the New York Knicks' No. 1 least replaceable player, Tyson Chandler apparently deserves the 1A distinction in that regard.

    The Knicks have been an unmitigated disaster on both ends of the court since losing Chandler to a fractured right fibula back on Nov. 5. They're allowing opponents to score a whopping 108.3 points per 100 possessions, 28th in the NBA, and are only scoring 102.5 points per 100 possessions, 19th in the NBA, according to Basketball Reference.

    New York's scoring differential (-5.4) is fourth-worst in the Eastern Conference as of Nov. 19. And seeing as the East isn't exactly stacked with world-beaters—only four teams are above .500 at the moment—Knicks fans have legitimate reason to worry about their team's chances of advancing deep into the playoffs.

    Carmelo Anthony slammed the Knicks' effort after their 110-90 loss to the Atlanta Hawks on Nov. 16, saying, "We ain't playing worth a s--- right now," per Ohm Youngmisuk of ESPN New York. But Chris Herring of the Wall Street Journal tweeted it best: "If the [Knicks] were more technically sound, maybe I'd buy the 'effort' thing."

    One way New York can get back on track: Improve its free-throw-attempt rate. Currently, the team only attempts .210 free-throw attempts per field-goal attempt, per Basketball Reference, which ranks 29th in the NBA.

The Cleveland Cavaliers' Offensive Efficiency

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    David Manning-USA TODAY Sports

    Cleveland Cavaliers head coach Mike Brown isn't exactly known as an offensive mastermind, but his team's offensive performance through 11 games has been simply abysmal.

    The Cavs are only averaging 96.2 points per 100 possessions, which ranks 29th in the NBA, per Basketball Reference. They're not much better when it comes to effective field-goal percentage (.451), standing ahead of only the 1-11 Utah Jazz and 5-6 Charlotte Bobcats in that regard.

    Many of these struggles can be traced back to the slow start of point guard Kyrie Irving. After shooting over 45 percent from the field and nearly 40 percent from three-point range over the first two years of his career, he's knocking down fewer than 40 percent of his field-goal attempts in 2013-14.

    On a brighter note, Irving is averaging a career-high 7.0 assists per game and dishing out assists on just under 40 percent of his possessions, per Basketball Reference. He also dropped a season-high 41 points against the Washington Wizards on Nov. 16, suggesting he's possibly ready to break out from his early-season slump.

    It's not too late for the Cavs to reverse their fortunes, but Irving, his teammates and Brown all need to get on the same page offensively. Until then, the Cavs won't be much more than a fringe playoff contender, even in a lackluster Eastern Conference.

The Los Angeles Clippers' Defensive Efficiency

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    Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

    If the Los Angeles Clippers are serious about contending for a championship in 2013-14, they'll need to get their heads on straight defensively.  

    New head coach Doc Rivers, who helped the Boston Celtics become of the league's most fearsome defensive squads in recent years, hasn't managed to translate that success to L.A. quite yet. Through 11 games, the Clippers are allowing opponents to score 108.9 points per 100 possessions (29th in the league), according to Basketball Reference.

    The Clips' starting five of Chris Paul, J.J. Redick, Jared Dudley, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan haven't been the problem, as they've scored 1.16 points per possession while only allowing 1.03 points per possession to opponents, per 82games.com. When Redick heads to the bench in favor of Jamal Crawford, though, L.A. starts hemorrhaging points defensively, allowing 1.43 points per possession.

    Last year's champions, the Miami Heat, finished ninth in the league in defensive efficiency, allowing opponents to score only 103.7 points per possession, per Basketball Reference. The Clips need to demonstrate serious improvement on that side of the court to legitimately contend for a title this year.

Jason Kidd's Coaching Ability in Brooklyn

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    David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

    Through the first 10 games of the 2013-14 season, the Brooklyn Nets' rookie head coach, Jason Kidd, appears to be far over his head.

    A veteran NBA scout told B/R's Howard Beck that Kidd "doesn't do anything. Assistant coaches John Welch and Lawrence Frank do "all the offense [and] defense," respectively. The scout also told Beck that he's only seen the Nets run 15 plays in the games he's watched, which could help explain Brooklyn's tendency to become offensively stagnant.

    Brooklyn currently ranks 20th in defensive efficiency, allowing opponents to score 107.6 points per 100 possession, and is 25th in effective field-goal percentage (.463), per Basketball Reference. One example of the Nets' offensive struggles: After dropping 40 points in the first quarter against the Portland Trail Blazers on Nov. 18, they scored 58 points over the final three quarters in the 108-98 loss.

    To the Nets' credit, they haven't thrown Kidd under the bus just yet. "The blame is [on] all of us, man," Garnett said following the loss to the Blazers, per Ohm Youngmisuk of ESPN New York. "It's not just on Jason. You can't put the s--- all on him."

    If Kidd can't prove to be a quick learner, however, he may soon find himself on the hot seat with championship-or-bust expectations looming large over his $190 million roster.

The Success of the Hack-a-Dwight

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    Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

    For opponents hoping to stop Dwight Howard, there's always been a simple answer: the Hack-a-Dwight.

    Howard's relationship with the free-throw line can be described as rocky at best. Despite reportedly being close to a 90 percent shooter from the charity stripe in practice, according to CBSsports.com's Ken Berger, Howard has only drilled 57.6 percent of his free-throw attempts during live-game action.

    After knocking down only four of his 12 free-throw attempts against the Toronto Raptors on Nov. 11, Howard told reporters that his weakness at the line is mostly a mental thing.

    "I don’t want to talk about it,” Howard said, per Jenny Dial Creech of the Houston Chronicle. "So much has been talked about free throws, just let it go. We talk about it so much, I think about it at the line. I don't want to think about it. I want to shoot."

    The Hack-a-Dwight already cost the Houston Rockets one win against the Los Angeles Lakers back on Nov. 7. If they're to be taken seriously as a championship contender this season, Howard will need to overcome his mental ailments at the charity stripe to make opponents pay for fouling him intentionally.

The Oklahoma City Thunder's Three-Point Shooting

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    Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY Sports

    The Oklahoma City Thunder must be feeling good about the start of their 2013-14 season, seeing as Russell Westbrook returned from offseason surgery weeks earlier than expected.

    There's been one major red flag that could spell doom to their title chances, however: Their three-point shooting is way, way down.

    In the 2012-13 season, the Thunder were the NBA's third-most accurate three-point shooting team (.377) while attempting 1,588 shots from downtown (16th in the league), per Basketball Reference. This year, they've only knocked down 32.5 percent of their 200 three-point attempts (24th and 19th, respectively).

    The absence of Kevin Martin, who drilled 158 of his 371 three-point attempts last year, would be the most obvious reason for OKC's sudden shooting woes. The combination of Jeremy Lamb and Reggie Jackson haven't yet been able to replicate Martin's production (1.9 made threes per game in 2013-14).

    One bright spot: Westbrook is averaging career highs in both made threes per game (1.5) and three-point field-goal percentage (.400) this season.

The Golden State Warriors' Turnover Rate

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    Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

    The Golden State Warriors have been one of the league's best teams during the first few weeks of the 2013-14 season, as noted by ESPN's Tom Haberstroh (subscription required). The Dubs rank ninth in offensive rating (106.9) and fourth in defensive rating (98.7), per Basketball Reference.

    There's only been one major wart for the Warriors through their first 11 games: turnovers. Or, more specifically, their turnover rate.

    Golden State has turned the ball over on 16.8 percent of its possessions, tied with the Houston Rockets for the worst in the league, per Basketball Reference. They're averaging 18.1 giveaways per game, tied with the Utah Jazz for the second-most in the league (ahead of only Houston).

    Point guard Stephen Curry has been the main culprit thus far, averaging a career-high 3.4 turnovers per game. Warriors coach Mark Jackson isn't sweeping the problem under the rug, telling CSNBayArea.com's Monte Poole on Nov. 4 that Curry "understands that if we are going to achieve our vision, he's got to take care of the basketball."

    The Dubs won't be advancing deep into the playoffs if they end roughly one-sixth of their possessions with a turnover. Luckily for Warriors fans, there's still plenty of time for the team to turn their giveaway problems around.

The San Antonio Spurs' Free-Throw Rate

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    Of all the teams featured here, the San Antonio Spurs have the least to worry about. They've cruised out to a 9-1 record, tied with the Indiana Pacers for the league's best, and appear to have no lingering negative effects from their devastating loss to the Miami Heat in the 2013 NBA Finals.

    There's one thing the Spurs must address in order to return to the Finals this season, however: Their dismal free-throw rate.

    San Antonio averages only .195 free-throw attempts per field-goal attempt, per Basketball Reference, by far the lowest mark in the league. The same is true for the number of free throws they average per field goal (.144).

    The Spurs weren't elite in that regard last year by any means—they were 20th in the NBA (tied with the New York Knicks), averaging .258 free-throw attempts per field-goal attempt. They were tied for 13th in the NBA (with the Boston Celtics) in terms of free throws per made field goal (.204), however.

    The ability to generate easy points at the charity stripe could prove invaluable during San Antonio's playoff run. It won't make or break the team's chances of winning a championship, but considering the gap between them and all other teams in free-throw-attempt rate, it's a concern nevertheless.